LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges of conspiring to obstruct a federal probe into misconduct by deputies in the jails.
At his arraignment in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, the 74-year-old ex-lawman told U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson that he had “cloudiness” on the brain due to Alzheimer’s disease, but was mentally capable of entering his not-guilty plea.
A tentative trial date of Oct. 4 was set.
Baca is facing federal charges of conspiring to obstruct justice, obstructing justice and lying to the federal government, stemming from his alleged response to a covert FBI investigation into corruption and brutality by jail deputies.
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman said outside court that a key issue for the defense will be whether the retired lawman was suffering any “cognitive impairment” as a result of Alzheimer’s at the time of the charged offenses.
He also said that if the court finds Baca’s condition is worsening, a mental competency hearing could be set to determine if he is able to assist in his own defense.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment on the day’s events.
The ex-sheriff previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count, which had been reached with federal prosecutors earlier this year and called for Baca to serve no more than six months in prison.
Anderson rejected the agreement as too lenient, prompting Baca to withdraw his plea instead of being sentenced to as much as five years behind bars.
Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
If convicted of all charges in the updated indictment, Baca could face up to 20 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In court Friday afternoon, Baca — wearing a small sheriff’s department star on his lapel — was asked by the judge whether he had any mental issues that would preclude the entry of a plea.
“I have Alzheimer’s … not sure if that constitutes a mental problem,” Baca responded. “I do have cloudiness on the brain — and I’ve had that for a while.”
The ex-sheriff also told Anderson that he had taken prescription medication Friday for the disease.
Asked if he understood the charges against him, Baca said he was “not totally familiar” with all the counts.
“I can’t say I fully get all of it,” he told Anderson.
But his attorney told the judge that Baca is competent and the arraignment should go forward. The judge then found the defendant “in full possession of his faculties.”
Prosecutors told the judge that the trial would last about two weeks and that the bulk of the evidence had been handed over to the defense last month.
Hochman, though, argued that he needed six months to prepare, requesting a trial date in February or March.
“We have a medical component and may present a medical defense,” the defense attorney told the court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Rhodes asked for a trial date in early December.
The judge told both sides to meet and hammer out an acceptable date amongst themselves. He set a tentative trial date of Oct. 4, with pretrial hearings on Sept. 19 and 26.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — is accused of participating in a wide-ranging conspiracy to derail the FBI’s probe of corruption and brutality within the walls of Men’s Central Jail.
After jail guards discovered that an inmate, Anthony Brown, was an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators. They also went to the home of an FBI agent and threatened her with arrest.
Ten former sheriff’s department officials — including Baca’s ex-top deputy, Paul Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case.
Tanaka, who claimed his former boss ordered the department’s response to the federal jails probe, was sentenced by Anderson to five years in prison, but is free pending appeal.
Baca had initially pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to investigators about his knowledge of the plan to threaten the FBI agent. That false statements count is one of the three counts Baca is now facing.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
A federal appellate panel recently upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.
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